I hope this isn’t a topic that has been discussed here before. I have been thinking lately about what it means to practice academic history. The recent post and comments about the new Emma Smith film, in correlation with my seemingly never-ending journey along the path of professionalization, have caused me to ask myself if the history undertaken by trained historians is any different than the study of the past by others. I hope that I am not constructing a straw man, but it seems that some people in the church have developed a sort of hostility toward those that focus their academic studies on Mormonism. My personal opinion about such hostilities is that they represent a reflection of how non-historians don’t really understand historians and their methods. This misunderstanding causes them to label such historians as threats. Thus, I thought I might embark on a few posts in the next few weeks trying to explain what it is that professional historians do, how that is different than what people were taught in high school, what analytical tools we bring into our research, and the relative strengths and weaknesses in academic history as a discipline. I then hope to start a conversation about how the tools of the historical craft affect the ways in which we do Mormon history. For me, this is an introspective but also expository exercise that I hope can foster discussion between those of us trained as historians and the rest of the world around us.My quest for today is to try and summarize the process which historians use to create academic histories. This explanation will be somewhat general, but I hope to encompass the essence of historical research and writing. Academically trained historians, like all those who write history, tell stories. Nevertheless, good academic historians take the story-telling to another level by incorporating argument and analysis into their narratives. We don’t just want to tell the story; we want to know what the story means and why it happened.
We build these stories by drawing from two pools of information: our own research and the research of others. Personal research generally focuses on what historians call primary sources. A primary source is a piece of evidence produced first-hand by someone close to the specific historical event or phenomena to be studied. We put together stories by analyzing primary sources, comparing what they say to other pieces of evidence, and then by putting them into a logical organizational scheme whether it be a time line, series of causes and effects, or thematic snapshots. As we analyze sources, we take into account their provenance (how the source got into our hands) and who or what produced the source. We also try to understand the limits of a particular source -we want to know what these sources don’t tell us as well.
In the midst of examining these primary sources and putting together analysis, we also take into account what other historians have said about the same or similar evidence. We can never examine every relevant document or talk to every person who participated in a specific event, so we rely on the work of others to contextualize and enrich our own studies. If our particular reading of the evidence disagrees with something another historian has said, we try to show why the other interpretation was wrong, and what makes our interpretation better. Such reinterpretations occur because historians find new evidence, they look at different kinds of evidence, they have made incorrect assumptions, or they decide to tell the story from a different perspective.
Good historians also try to identify and acknowledge the intellectual baggage that they bring to the study of a particular subject. Objectivity is a myth, and the “Truth” (notice the capital T) will always be obscured by the human filters through which historical sources are produced and read. All of us have a particular world view that prejudices the ways that we understand the world. Yet the professional processes of history offer us tools to conscientiously try to put forth our best efforts and bring forth the best possible historical examinations
As for the academic study of Mormon history, I think there are a few aspects of the process of historical examination make it difficult for some Mormon audiences. First, academic history is complex and it does reject the concept of an absolute, knowable truth. It also looks at the human world as a closed-circuit-there is little room for Divine manifestation or intervention. Only documentable events can enter a narrative. Historians break down the myths of and authentic and static world-they demonstrate the infinite complexity of the human mosaic. I would love to hear anybody else’s thoughts on the historical craft and how it relates to Mormon history. Do you agree with my portrayal of academic history and historians? Is there a tension between academic history and Mormonism?